NASA has disclosed further details about its upcoming nuclear rocket launch scheduled for 2027. The agency has joined forces with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to conduct a test flight of a nuclear rocket on a conventional vehicle launch, focusing on examining the engine’s performance and ensuring its adherence to expectations.

During a recent meeting of NASA’s Advisory Council, Dr. Anthony Calomino, NASA’s space nuclear technology portfolio Manager, highlighted the safety measures implemented in the nuclear rocket launch plans. He emphasized that the reactor would remain inactive until it is securely distanced from Earth, emphasizing NASA’s commitment to ensuring the mission’s safety.

NASA’s involvement in the development of nuclear technology for space applications centers around three main designs: nuclear fission surface power generation (similar to a conventional nuclear power plant), nuclear electric propulsion, and nuclear thermal propulsion. The agency is presently collaborating with six contractors, including Lockheed Martin, BIWXT, Westinghouse, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Intuit Machines, and X-Energy, to develop a concept for a 40-kilowatt-electric lunar fission surface plant.

Dr. Calomino informed attendees that the design reviews for IX were concluded in April, with Lockheed’s proposal scheduled for review later this month. To gauge the necessary investment for the project, NASA and the Department of Energy are employing a government reference design. Moreover, NASA is partnering with the Air Force Research Laboratory for the Joint Energy Technology Supplying On-Orbit Nuclear Power (JETSON) initiative. The agency is also exploring opportunities to provide supporting materials such as lightweight components and shielding equipment.

Interestingly, some contractors, including Lockheed and Westinghouse, are considering utilizing the fission surface plant for their own corporate projects, such as Lockheed’s lunar economy plans. Lockheed recently filed an application with the FCC seeking permission to establish communication with lunar objects, revealing their intent to include a nuclear plant in their plans.

While NASA initially focused on developing technologies for Mars missions, the agency has now shifted its focus to cislunar projects, leveraging the expertise gained for future Mars exploration. Additionally, NASA is open to cost-sharing agreements with other government entities, such as the Department of Defense, as they can benefit mutually from these collaborative efforts.

For the development of nuclear electric propulsion (NEP) vehicles, NASA recognizes the potential of leveraging existing technologies such as surface nuclear systems and solar electric systems to expedite progress and save time. NEP employs a nuclear power plant to generate electricity, which, in turn, generates thrust using stable gases. NASA aims to generate tens of kilowatts of power for the NEP vehicle and is exploring the development of “chemical boost” systems utilizing propellants like methane.

NASA’s objective is to develop the required technologies for lunar missions and identify the most suitable technology for Mars missions. The agency is exploring sub-scale, lower-thrust options to demonstrate operational capabilities and identify the specific requirements of each application.

Another nuclear propulsion system being explored is nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP). NASA has partnered with the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory to award three contracts for NTP nuclear reactor development in 2021. Unlike NEP, which relies on electricity, NTP employs the heat generated by a reactor to expand hydrogen and generate thrust. NASA is collaborating with DARPA to develop an NTP engine, with NASA focusing on the engine itself and DARPA developing the necessary technologies for launching the nuclear rocket as a payload.

By Impact Lab